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Farm Bill’s Failure Poisons Well in House

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:23 p.m. | The House’s stunning defeat of the farm bill Thursday dealt another blow to Speaker John A. Boehner’s leadership and set off a poisonous round of partisan finger-pointing that raised questions about the ability of the chamber to craft bipartisan deals on immigration, the budget and the debt later this year.

As the dust settled after the resounding 195-234 vote, stakeholders traded blame over how the bill failed after days of debate on more than 100 amendments and were looking ahead to the fallout.

“I’d think that Democrats’ decision to sandbag us on the farm bill today makes it obvious how impractical it would be to rely on them for votes on immigration,” a GOP leadership aide said.

Democrats contended just the opposite — that Republicans had taken their votes for granted and jammed partisan amendments down their throats.

“It shows [Boehner] can’t pass anything with his own votes,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “The progress with immigration needs to be bipartisan … the only answer is, they gotta work with Democrats. They don’t have a choice.”

Republicans fumed, however, that Democrats promised they would deliver 40 votes only to withdraw them at the very last minute. Sixty-two Republicans voted against the bill, while two dozen Democrats supported it.

Most Democrats opposed the bill, unhappy with a $20.5 billion, 10-year cut to food stamps and backed by a White House veto threat, while Republicans split into competing factions, with a sizable group egged on by a host of conservative interest groups opposing the bill over concerns it did not cut deeply enough.

“After promising significant support, congressional Democrats walked away from years of bipartisan work on the farm bill at the last minute,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “This is a sad day for bipartisanship and for America’s farmers.”

Agriculture ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., acknowledged to reporters that he told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., that he had lost votes for the bill.

“He said, ‘What should we do?’ and I said, ‘I’ll try, but there’s not much I can do,'” Peterson said.

Two amendments angered key Democrats — one endorsed by Boehner that stripped the bill of a dairy supply management program, a move sure to anger lawmakers who hail from cow country — and another, sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., that would have added work requirements to the food stamp program.

“The Southerland amendment has been debated, discussed … for weeks. Everybody knew that it was coming, everybody knew that it was going to pass,” said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.

“Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership decided that politics was more important than going to conference and getting things done,” he said. He called the Democrats’ decision to vote at the last minute against the bill a “complete collapse of professionalism and maturity on the Democratic Party’s part and unfortunately a slap in the face of the American people.”

But in a briefing with reporters following the vote, Pelosi called the floor proceedings as managed by Republicans “amateur hour,” calling them “juvenile” and “unprofessional” and disputing accusations that Democrats fell short of their agreement to deliver 40 votes.

“They didn’t get the results and they put the blame on someone else,” the California Democrat said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on hand to talk about Democratic efforts to force GOP leaders to go to conference on a budget, weighed in as well.

“If Leader Pelosi was Speaker Pelosi, this would never happen,” he said. “She knew how to govern. … It’s pathetic that the Republican whip team would be trying to point fingers at others.”

Democrats called the Southerland amendment a “poison pill,” likening it to the fiscal 2014 Homeland Security appropriations bill, which lost Democratic votes when the House voted in favor of an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would remove protections against deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children.

“The fact of the matter is, it was a bipartisan bill … and it was turned into a partisan bill,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said on the House floor in a tense colloquy with Cantor.

In the midst of assessing the political fallout of the vote’s defeat, lawmakers were not immediately discussing the logistical next steps for passing a crucial five-year authorization of various farm programs, many of which expired when the House was unable to pass a farm bill last year.

The farm bill had been one of the first big tests for the speaker this year, with immigration and budget battles yet to come.

Leadership had warned conservatives that if a farm bill did not pass, an extension was likely that would not include changes and savings conservatives support.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., told reporters as he left the floor that, at least for him, what should come next is “healing.”

The conservative Club for Growth, which urged a “no” vote on the legislation, had a different suggestion Thursday afternoon.

“Now that the House has defeated the Farm Bill, we should finally discuss real reform,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement. “The time for reform is now. We need to put farm subsidies on a path to elimination and we need to devolve food stamps to the state level where they belong. With $17 trillion in debt, the American taxpayers don’t have time to wait.”

But Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had a suggestion of her own.

“The House needs to find a way to get a five-year Farm Bill done,” she said in a statement. “The Speaker needs to work in a bipartisan way and present a bill that Democrats and Republicans can support. He could start by bringing the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.”

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